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Can You Hear Me Now?

Dale Hudson

Feedback from parents is vital to your ministry's growth, health, and longevity. Here's the ultimate guide on how to ask for it.

Parents are our greatest allies in children's ministry. Children's ministry as a whole has recognized this in recent years and is championing the importance of partnering with parents. From take-home papers and family curriculum to parenting classes and family worship experiences, children's ministries everywhere are striving to make vital connections with parents.

No matter the size of your church, budget, or staff, there's one sure thing you can do to partner with parents: Listen to them. This is simple but effective. Listening to and gathering feedback from parents can take your children's ministry and parent partnership to a whole new level. And no matter how awesome your children's ministry is now, it can and will improve when you gather and use feedback from parents.

Feedback: Worth Every Word

There are many valuable principles, ideas, and strategies that translate from successful business practices into children's ministry management. Gathering feedback is one area where this is especially true. Leaders of great companies know how important it is to listen to their customers, and they go to great lengths to do so. They know getting customer input is critical to their success. And the feeling is mutual: Recent trends show that many customers value giving input even more than they value low prices. Companies that isolate themselves from their customers contribute to their own demise. Likewise, children's ministries that isolate themselves from parents' input, ideas, and suggestions limit a vital partnership. Instead, do the following.

• Show parents you value them. Often we only seek out parents when we need resources or more volunteers, which can lead to parents feeling used. Intentionally asking for their feedback, though, shows that you value their input and take their concerns to heart. It demonstrates that what they have to say is important to you and your ministry.

• Care about what parents think. Actively seeking parents' opinions shows that you want to know their challenges, issues, and situations. It demonstrates that you're trying to meet their needs.

• Partner with parents. When you reach out to link arms with parents by gathering their feedback, they see and feel that you're partnering with them in discipling their children. A free and open interchange of ideas and feedback lets you work together with them as a team.

How to Get What You Need

Use these great techniques to effectively gather parent feedback.

• Suggestion Box-(Frequency: Always) It's simple and it's been around a long time, but the suggestion box is a proven tool that's very effective. That's because it's anonymous and the people who leave comments are motivated to tell you what they have to say. A few boxes with comment cards placed in key areas around your ministry can bring you valuable feedback and uncover issues you need to know about.

• Open Forums-(Frequency: Impromptu) You probably have meetings scheduled with parents this year -- camp meetings, new Christians meetings, baby dedication meetings, and more. Why not dedicate time at the end of each for discussion or to direct parents to feedback cards they can complete?

• Online Surveys-(Frequency: Weekly) Online surveys are especially helpful if you want feedback from families after their first visit, chiefly because they're convenient for parents. Send a letter or distribute cards inviting parents to take the survey, and let them know that at the end of the survey there'll be a coupon for a free gift from your church. (The gift can be anything from a free coffee to a book.)

You can set up online surveys fairly inexpensively. Companies such as Zoomerang.com and Polldaddy.com offer templates and services to get your online surveys going.

• Email Surveys-(Frequency: Twice yearly) If you don't have time or resources to set up an online survey, an email survey can work well also. Gather parents' email addresses and invite them to answer feedback questions and send them back to you via email. Keep the number of questions you ask to no more than 10, since many parents will elaborate on their answers.

• Mail Surveys-(Frequency: Twice yearly) Send out a feedback questionnaire. Include a self-addressed return envelope or ask parents to turn it in the next time they attend church.

• Feedback Cards-(Frequency: Twice yearly) Hand parents a feedback form when they drop off their kids and ask them to return it to you at pick up.

• Focus Groups-(Frequency: Twice yearly) One particularly successful thing we've done to get feedback is create parent focus groups. These focus groups have been especially beneficial when it comes to getting direct feedback on topics we're specifically interested in. Here are the steps we take when organizing a focus group.

1. Determine a convenient meeting time. Keep parents' busyness in mind and select a low-risk time that'll work best for them.

2. Select a place to meet. Meet at the church, or, if you prefer a more relaxed environment, meet at someone's home.

3. Provide child care. Since you're asking parents to give you their valuable time, offer child care. This makes it a lot easier for them to say yes.

4. Make focus groups age-specific. To get the information you need, strategically organize your groups. Hold individual focus groups for parents of infants and toddlers, preschoolers, elementary kids, and preteens.

5. Choose your participants carefully. I recommend inviting eight to 10 parents. This is the optimal number to drum up good discussion without people feeling like they have to talk over each other to be heard. Invite a variety of parents. Invite parents who've attended your church for a long time and some who just started attending. Invite parents who are longtime Christians and some who are new Christians. Invite single parents and married parents. The more diverse your group is, the better their insights will be. Don't just invite your friends who'll tell you what you want to hear; select a different group of parents each time. And don't invite someone who's openly antagonistic toward your ministry and will immediately create a negative spirit in the meeting. Pick parents who'll bring balanced conversation.

6. Send invitations and have parents RSVP. Send invitations three to four weeks before the meeting so parents have time to plan and RSVP. Send a reminder email or postcard the week before. Call parents you haven't heard from, and have a backup list of potential parents to invite in case someone can't make it.

7. Provide a snack or meal. This gesture shows parents you value them.

8. Don't plan for longer than an hour and a half to two hours for your meeting. Start and end promptly. Honor parents' time.

9. Begin with prayer. Ask God to lead your discussion and to give everyone present his heart and wisdom.

10. Ask for introductions. Let parents introduce themselves and tell about their family. Keep it moving; give parents one or two minutes to talk.

11. Ask for honest, open dialogue. Establish an environment at the beginning where parents feel free to state their ideas and opinions. Tell them there are no right or wrong answers. Assure them that they won't hurt your feelings.

12. Dive into discussion. Come prepared with a list of no more than 10 questions and topics you plan to discuss. (For ideas, see "Questions to Ask Focus Groups" on page 86.) When you sense a topic has grown stale, move on.

13. Take notes. Enlist a ministry volunteer to take notes on a laptop throughout the meeting, and jot down key points you want to reference later yourself. Careful notes ensure you can go back and review later, but you don't want to spend all your attention and energy trying to keep up with notes; you want to participate in the discussion -- that's the reason for having someone dedicated solely to this task.

14. Close with prayer. Ask God to bless the families, and thank them for their time and insights.

15. Follow up. Send a personal note to each parent to say thanks within one week of the meeting.

16. Create an action plan and initiatives. Evaluate and make plans to implement the ideas you and your team gained from the meeting.


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